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TAB on Verge of Big Wins at Capitol

- Defense, Offense Alike

With just a handful of days left in the 2019 Texas legislative session, TAB is on the verge of scoring some big wins for local TV and Radio stations on multiple fronts. The victories are poised to come down on both sides of the ledger – offense and defense – in ways that will directly benefit stations’ bottom lines and their mission to inform, protect and entertain the communities they’re licensed to serve.

While there are several other bills TAB influenced in members’ favor this session, here’s a rundown of the “big stuff” so far:

Open Government Wins
Texas broadcasters’ signature initiative this session was undoing the damage resulting from two disastrous Texas Supreme Court rulings in cases involving Boeing Aviation and the Greater Houston Partnership, the economic development arm of the City of Houston and surrounding areas.

The rulings left taxpayers in the dark on how their dollars are being spent by private and non-profit companies contracting with government agencies, often providing services previously delivered by government employees. In less than four years since being issued, the rulings gave government officials at local and state agencies license to reject thousands of requests for information that had long been available to taxpayers.

Our efforts in 2017 to address these rulings cleared the Senate but never gained traction at the behest of two Republican lawmakers, neither of whom returned to office this session – one by his own will, the other by the voters’.

SB 943 by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, addresses both rulings and is awaiting Senate concurrence with some non-controversial amendments made in the House where Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, championed the House companion legislation. Both addressed TAB members at the 2017 TAB Show and Capriglione was a featured speaker at TAB’s 2019 Legislative Day conference.

In addition to extensive one-on-one advocacy with scores of lawmakers, TAB also conducted statewide polling on five different Open Government concerns that showed about 70 percent of Texans strongly favored our efforts, helping fuel legislative support.

The third priority initiative for TAB was to amend existing law to require a government officer or employee who possesses public records in their private email accounts or on their personal digital devices to hand that information over to the governmental body upon request. This law has some teeth, too – a new criminal penalty for not complying.

HB 1700 by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, advanced this measure on our behalf for the third consecutive session and apparently the third try was the charm.  It got rolled into a broader bill addressing various problems with the Texas Public Information Act, SB 944 by Watson.

This measure is awaiting Senate concurrence with a good but controversial amendment made in the House by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso. That amendment closes a loophole in the TPIA that allows law enforcement to avoid having to release information on cases in which someone in their custody died.

Unfortunately, this amendment will likely be stripped in the Senate because of opposition from Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. The measure had never been the subject of a Senate committee hearing or floor debate.

TAB’s fourth and final priority initiative is coming down to the wire awaiting approval in the Texas Senate. HB 1655, also by Hunter, would restore public access to dates of birth contained in public records other than employees’ personnel files and health records protected under HIPAA.

TAB advanced this issue last session, too, when it passed the Senate but died in the House.

A surprise issue that came to the fore just after the start of the session was a Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that declared the “walking quorum” language in the Texas Public Information Act “unconstitutionally vague.”

Watson again jumped in, along with Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, who co-authored SB 1640 to address the court’s concerns. The bill is awaiting final approval in the Senate of amendments made by the House.

Free Speech Win
TAB led the successful fight to protect our hard-won Anti-SLAPP law adopted in 2011 as the legal community demonstrated that various provisions of the measure were being invoked in cases where the law was never intended to apply and was clogging court dockets throughout the state. Other interests were hoping to gut the law entirely and return Texas to the days when wealthy individuals and powerful companies could sue their critics into silence, even absent any defamatory statements.

The resulting rewrite of the law preserves the core Free Speech protections of the original law while addressing the legal community’s concerns. It was the result of protracted negotiations, a marathon public hearing and the engagement of scores of different parties.

TAB’s attorneys were key to this success. Laura Prather with Haynes and Boone marshalled a broad range of interested parties into the Protect Free Speech Coalition and helped lead the negotiations with two other First Amendment attorneys. Stacy Allen with Jackson Walker provided key and compelling testimony that provided the bill sponsor the legal path to resolving the impasse, prompting a rare public back and forth on precise wording and case law.

Especially key, though, was the bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who also chaired the committee of jurisdiction for the bill. After being slammed by Free Speech advocates for his initial draft, he publicly promised to ensure the strongest possible protections for citizens, journalists and content providers. 

Leach delivered on that promise while addressing the legal community’s concerns. His conduct of the marathon public hearing – on April Fool’s Day, no less – was lauded by TAB Board member and Past Chairman John Barger as “a great civics lesson if ever I saw one,” reflecting the broad range of concerns expressed by various parties and the march toward a resolution.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Oscar Rodriguez or call (512) 322-9944.

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